With Selection Sunday less than three weeks away, many league races are still wide open. The Southland Conference is not among them. Stephen F. Austin is coming off back-to-back NCAA tournaments as the league’s tourney champ and is currently 14–0 in Southland play, looking ready for the trifecta.
The Lumberjacks haven’t officially locked up the regular-season crown yet, but with a three-game lead on second place Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (a team they’ve beat twice) and only four games left on the schedule, it would take a staggering reversal of fortunes for the title to elude them. And while anything can happen in conference tournaments, a team with a +21.6 scoring margin in conference play has to feel good about its chances.
Stephen F. Austin was a trendy Round of 64 upset pick after earning a No. 12 seed last season, but didn’t quite have enough to overcome fifth-seeded Utah. That wasn’t the case in 2014, when the school picked up its first-ever NCAA tournament win by knocking off No. 5 seed VCU in the opening round (it would fall to No. 4 UCLA in the next game). A few players from that team are still around, most notably senior guard Thomas Walkup.
Walkup, who was previously featured in an SI mid-major report as a player to watch, pulls off a rare statistical feat for Lumberjacks: He leads the team in scoring (17.2 ppg), rebounds (6.6 rpg), assists (4.3 apg), steals (1.8 spg) and field-goal percentage (59.9%). His offensive rating of 127.7 ranks No. 29 in the country, according to kenpom.com. Behind Walkup are senior guard Demetrious Floyd and senior forward Clide Geffrard, Jr., who average 13.7 and 13.0 points per game, respectively. Together, the “Big Three” contribute nearly 44 of the team’s 78.9 points per game.
All of Stephen F. Austin’s top five scorers shoot at least 46% from the field, helping make it a top-20 team in both effective field goal percentage and two-point percentage. But the Lumberjacks are strongest on the defensive end, and they’ll make you pay if you don’t take care of the ball. Everyone knows about West Virginia and its press defense, but did you know the Mountaineers aren’t No. 1 in the country in defensive turnover percentage? That honor belongs to Stephen F. Austin, which uses its own man-to-man pressure defense and forces a turnover on 25.4% of opposing possessions, according to kenpom.com. Think about that—teams are turning the ball over on one out of every four possessions when they face the Lumberjacks. Not only are the Lumberjacks strong defensively, but their defensive possessions are short, averaging 16.2 seconds.
With Stony Brook falling at Albany last week, Stephen F. Austin now owns the country’s longest winning streak at 14 games. The Lumberjacks could conceivably enter the NCAA tournament on a 20-game winning streak and be brimming with confidence. The knock on them at this point is their relatively weak league, but it wasn’t any stronger two years ago, when Stephen F. Austin pulled off its NCAA tournament upset. A team that can shoot the ball well and force turnovers at a high rate will always be dangerous, and if the Lumberjacks do return to the Big Dance they could be a tricky first-round matchup for a high seed.
Player to Watch: Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams
After averaging 6.6 points in his freshman year, 12.7 as a sophomore and 12.8 as a junior, Adams is now pouring in 23.9 points per game in his final year. But that’s not all—his stats are up nearly across the board, as he’s improved his three-point shooting from 32.4% last year to 37.9% this season, his free-throw shooting from 74.3% to 81.1%, his rebounding from 3.3 per game to 5.8 and his assists from 3.6 per game to 4.3. You rarely see that kind of significant jump in a player between junior and senior year, but Adams clearly was committed to stepping up his all-around game this off-season.
In a win over Colorado State on Saturday, Adams made a career-high nine threes and scored 37 in an 84–66 rout. It was his eighth 30-point game of the season, the peak coming in a narrow January win over New Mexico when he produced 38 of Wyoming’s 70 points in a two-point win. The 13–15 Cowboys would need a miracle in the Mountain West tournament to reach the NCAAs, so don’t miss what could be the final four games of Adams’s excellent career.
Game of the Week: Marshall at UAB, Thursday at 8 p.m. ET
It’s not often that a team starts the season 0–6 yet ends up having a shot at its conference’s regular-season title entering the final weeks of the season, but that’s the case for the Thundering Herd. Marshall shook off a bad nonconference slate and has used its high-tempo and sharp-shooting offense to build an 11–3 mark in Conference USA. It’s currently second place in the league, one game behind UAB heading into Thursday’s matchup in Birmingham. Both are looking to nab the No. 1 seed in the C-USA tournament, with the Blazers looking to make back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances and the Thundering Herd seeking their first bid since 1987.
Stat of the Week: 3.97
That’s how many steals Omaha junior guard Tra-Deon Hollins averages per game, more than one steal more than any other player in the country. (Providence’s Kris Dunn is next, averaging 2.92). In 29 games Hollins has earned 115 thefts, including an eight-steal performance against IPFW in January and a seven-steal effort against Denver earlier this month.
With only one game left on Omaha’s regular-season schedule, Hollins has a chance at posting the highest steals per game average in a regular season since Desmond Cambridge averaged a whopping 5.52 steals for Alabama A&M in 2001–02. He’ll need to meet his average (4 steals) to do so. Oddly enough, a Providence player (John Linehan) came in second in the nation to Cambridge that year, just as the Friars’ Dunn currently sits behind Hollins in 2015–16.